Victoria Chang’s interview was conducted from her hands-free device in her car, as she left work—she’s the program chair of the low-residency MFA program at Antioch University in Los Angeles—as she got on the freeway to pick up her children. She had just returned from the Lannan Residency, and had been reviewing applications for the Idyllwild Writer’s Week, a program she co-coordinates with her colleague, Ed Skoog.
“There are a lot of scholarship applications!” Chang tells me. “So, I read a whole bunch just before this interview. I think that all the things I do are fun for me, which is why I do them, and I know they are also important, too.”
What’s fun for Victoria Chang might seem overwhelming for others. Besides Idyllwild, Chang also serves on the Board for the National Book Critics Circle Award, as well as serves as a judge on other book prizes. As program chair of Antioch, Chang runs the program with a small team, regularly recruiting special guests and managing faculty, as well as her work with students.
Chang’s poetry collections include Circle (2005), winner of the Crab Orchard Review Award Series in Poetry; Salvinia Molesta (2008); The Boss (2013); and Barbie Chang (2017). Her children’s picture book, Is Mommy? (illustrated by Marla Frazee) was a New York Times Notable Book, and her middle grade novel, Love, Love, is forthcoming this year with Sterling Publishing. Chang’s poetry has appeared in Kenyon Review, Poetry, Threepenny Review, and Best American Poetry 2005, 2019, and 2020. She has been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, a MacDowell Colony Fellowship, the Lannan Residency, and a Pushcart Prize, amongst others.
Victoria Chang’s newest book, Obit (Copper Canyon Press 2020), is a monument to a life that’s disappearing. In its pages, Chang grieves her mother, who died of pulmonary fibrosis in 2015, and her father, who suffered frontal lobe damage in 2009 after a stroke. Most of the poems closely resemble newspaper obituaries, and Chang openly mourns the loss of everything that once existed: her father, mother, herself, time, civility, language, her future, and even things like, “Mother’s blue dress.” I admired Obit’s dreamy form and structure, and related to the speaker’s contemplative voice.
I spoke to Chang in the beginning of February, three days after my beloved Auntie Molly died, and eight months after my own mother had a stroke. I told her how Obit was an oasis of understanding, a place where grief wasn’t taboo, and the speaker shared my shifting grief. Chang shared all about how her furious writing process led to an obsessive time of editing, and finally to her finished book.
The Rumpus: Obit got deep really quickly! I would say it’s a book about grieving.
Victoria Chang: Yes, although it’s not about one specific kind of grieving. I wanted to describe how awful a person can feel in the process of any kind of grieving. Putting words to that depth of pain, and breadth of pain, and a pain that is so unidentifiable, that doesn’t want to be snatched or grabbed or touched. In essence, I think, in hindsight, I tried to distill grief and give language to something I knew would be impossible to describe. Ultimately, I think I failed, because I don’t think grief can be described. I think, in retrospect, it was a challenge to see if it could be done anyway.
Rumpus: How did you get the idea to put obituary poems into a collection?
Chang: I just started writing them once the idea of writing one popped into my head. I wrote one, then another, then another, and another, and just kept on going for two weeks straight. I hardly ate, hardly slept, and hardly spoke to anyone.
Rumpus: I know you lost your mother in 2015. Your father, who had a stroke in 2009, is still alive. Do you feel like you’ve lost him as well?
Chang: Oh, yes. He’s here in his physical body, but, for me at least, my dad died a long time ago. I haven’t had a cohesive conversation with him in about twelve years. So, I definitely feel like he died first. Then my mother died after he had a stroke because after my father had a stroke, it was done. There was stress all the time. They fought all the time because he couldn’t understand anything due to his medical condition and she was dying. He was very difficult. We didn’t know about all the medications available. My mom didn’t want to put him in a home. There were so many options we didn’t even know about. It was all so many things that we weren’t ready or equipped to deal with. My mom’s old self had died. For those of us with aging parents—this is true for anyone who has chronically sick people around them—you see so many little deaths before you see the actual death. My dad dies a little more every week, mainly through language. He can still talk, but he doesn’t make any sense.
Rumpus: “Gait” is about the way your father used to walk: “Once erect, light, flat / footed. Magnificent. Now, his gait / shuffles like sandpaper.” This imagery speaks to something lost.
Chang: Yes. Maybe it also defines how we’re all slowly dying. We gain enormous amounts of knowledge and wisdom every day, but we also lose things, too. It’s a very strange thing to watch someone lose tiny little things that defined them. After my father’s stroke, I used to think: He never used to walk like that… but there have been eight hundred little deaths since then. Now he’s pretty much wheelchair bound. So, it’s all very sad. You can literally drown in sadness if you spend too much time thinking about it. Then, all of a sudden, something strikes you as odd or funny and you burst out laughing and crying at the same time. That’s the weird thing about life—there are always really good things going on and really bad things going on. Within a minute, you can feel twelve emotions. Or maybe that’s just me.
Rumpus: You do a beautiful job of showing us the ups and downs inside of grief, especially in the obituary to “Tears”: “The way grief takes / many forms, as tears or pinwheels…”
Chang: I think grief can be like that for everyone. Grief is even more intense for people who’ve had sadness over a long period of time. These experiences have given me more empathy for people who suffer from depression because I see how hard it is to live in this world with something always hanging over you. Or people who have been ill or have had parents, children, etc., die early. There are a lot of people suffering in many different ways. If there’s any silver lining in this whole series of experiences, it’s been that it’s made me a better person.
Rumpus: Are some moments harder for you than others?
Chang: When I see people I grew up with, whose parents are still alive, and they post pictures of themselves with their parents, it’s hard to see that. Or, when they visit my dad and seem so healthy. It’s hard to look at pictures of them going on vacation together. When there’s grandparent’s day at school, I feel sad that my kids never really got to know my dad or my mom too much. Things test us all the time, and this was/is my test, or at least one of them. If you’re a religious person, you might say, “This is the life God gave me.” I can live with this because it’s my fate. I’ll take it and make the best of it. My parents are the ones who have suffered and are really suffering. I’m just the witness (and the worker).
Rumpus: After you accept these losses, you show how there are even more challenges. One poem says: “The problem is, my father’s brain / won’t stop walking, and my dead / mother is everywhere.”
Chang: There’s something about the relationship between mother and child that is so unique. When your mother passes away, you feel like part of yourself is gone, because you were always a part of them. It’s like there’s a ghost of you now, there’s only half of you walking around. I know mothers die every day, and people lose their mothers all the time. I know I’m not the only one, but maybe I’m just naturally inclined towards grieving, and I process that grieving by writing.
Rumpus: There are places where a kind of dark humor appears in the book. You even quote Updike in a way that exposes his cluelessness.
Chang: [Laughs] Yep!
Rumpus: You’re fed up with the patriarchy, and Updike, their quintessential darling, their champion, views death differently than you: “John Updike once said, Each day, we / wake slightly altered, and the person / we were yesterday is dead. So, why, / one could say, be afraid of death, / when death comes all the time? / Updike must not have watched / someone slowly suffocating.”
Chang: I wrote that about my mother, but I think my dad is slowly suffocating, too. He’s dying a slow death, almost like a drip. Last year he fell eighteen or twenty times—I didn’t count, or I lost count—and he was in the ER four times. It’s a lot to witness, and it’s a lot for his body to take. I see him go through this and I feel all these emotions. I think people react to death very differently. Like how when some people get shots, they feel no pain, while other people look at a needle and faint. It’s the same way with death, as well. I think that’s why I wrote that Updike thing. It was like I was saying, “What do you know? We’re all different.”
Rumpus: Can we talk about the structure of your book? You divided Obit into three parts: part one and part three are collections of obit poems, which are columnar, rectangular forms memorializing different people and things. You give them titles like, “My Mother,” “Victoria Chang,” “Voice mail,” etc. Now and then, in between these obits, Japanese tankas, lighter poems, pop up, unannounced. The middle section is one long poem called, “I Am a Miner, the Light Turns Blue.” Why is the book divided like this?
Chang: I can be an obsessive writer. I’m very aware of the pacing in a book because of this personality characteristic. By the time I’m finally putting together a book, I’m aware of how my poems can be tedious, exhausting, require too much energy, or have too much sameness to them. These are things I’ve heard from other people about my personality, too. I wanted to provide periodic breaks or a respite from the intensity of the obit poems, but also from the form.
That middle section is actually a collection of sonnets—fake sonnets, just fourteen lines, nothing else—all written as elegies. They were related to children and family. I collected them together into one long poem, made them all fourteen lines, added breaks, caesuras, in between. Then, I connected them just for fun. I tried to find one word or phrase at the end of each one to connect it to the beginning of the next one. They’re just messing around with the idea that all things come to an end. I used a Sylvia Plath line as the title of the middle poem.
The tankas are another set of smaller breaks, which are sprinkled throughout the manuscript to provide breaks for the reader. I had been writing form poems just for fun—I wrote villanelles, sestinas, pantoums, ghazals—and the tankas really resonated with me in the end. I think I put them in the book, almost as a way of having a bit of a breath. At the time, I’d been raising and caring for my growing children, but I was also caring for my elderly parents. It was easy to see how these kids were going to make it… and my parents? No matter what I did, no matter how hard I tried, they were never going to make it. That kind of dichotomy continues to be very challenging and interesting.
Rumpus: I like how you say you placed these tankas in the middle so we could take a breath. The subject of your mother dying of pulmonary fibrosis made it seem very purposeful that you placed them where you did. It felt like, “This is where we breathe.” That felt refreshing.
Chang: When I read the final manuscript—I must have read the final Obit manuscript aloud hundreds of times—there were places where I felt like it was getting too heavy, or too much. That’s when I’d slip in a tanka. Or when I fell asleep reading my own work. I actually fall asleep all the time reading my own poems or doze off. I sometimes wonder if this means my poems are boring!
Rumpus: Not at all! In the middle of this book, you give us this beautiful, floating, separated space—now I see they’re a collection of sonnets—that is dedicated to life and children. I can see why you’d use the first line from Plath’s “Nick and the Candlestick” because it’s free and splashed on the page, in comparison to the columns. What do you call this kind of poetry?
Chang: I don’t know what I’d call it. I don’t like to think too much about it, because that’s when the cool, unexpected collisions happen. I don’t spend a lot of time thinking, That logically makes sense! For me, a lot of the writing experience is about feeling, intuition, and organic freedom. The poems in the middle of the book had never been published anywhere else, so I thought, “Why not put them in here?” I played around with them. I think I broke them open because the obit was so constrained in its little box.
Chang: So, I think one could make an argument that I broke it open with the broken lines to break apart that kind of constriction for, again, some breath. A lot of it relates to losing your breath and suffocating. I think opening up those lines maybe is a way of giving air to the book.
Rumpus: Has your writing process changed over the years?
Chang: I hope so! I used to write more often. When I had children, everything changed—this will sound familiar to many people who are parents—I only had time in little bursts. That’s when my writing changed. So, I write feverishly and furiously for short amounts of time and then I spend years editing and revising.
Rumpus: I’ve learned so much from you about becoming a responsible literary citizen. Can you share how this makes us better writers and people?
Chang: The more humility you have, the better of a literary citizen I think you’ll be. We’re all part of a greater something, all of us are part of a whole, but none of us are the whole all by ourselves. Sometimes writers try to be the whole. That is such an empty path and I don’t think we can survive alone. I want to be part of a whole, part of something greater, and I want to give back to my communities. I want to be remembered for how I contributed to the writing community rather than for what I took from it.
Photograph of Victoria Chang by Margaret Molloy.